Boston bombing probe: What Tsarnaev's friends tell us about adolescents (+video)
The arrests of three college friends of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could be a chance for adults to help young people sort through complicated issues of friendship and loyalty, as well as moral and legal obligations.
As the public focuses on allegations that three college friends of Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev took his laptop and backpack containing fireworks out of his dorm room, many people may be asking, âWhat were they thinking?â
Itâs an oft-repeated question when it comes to adolescent behavior. And yes, psychology experts say, 19 (the age of all four) can still be considered adolescent â with poor judgment, impulsivity, and sense of invulnerability all too common as theyâre still developing.
The arrests of Azamat Tazhayakov, Dias Kadyrbayev, and Robel Phillipos can become a sort ofÂ âteachable momentâ â a chance for adults to realize the importance of helping young people sort through complicated issues of friendship and loyalty, as well as the moral and legal obligations they have to broader society when they are aware of people at risk of harming themselves or others.
âOften at that age, people do things inconsistent with what they know to be right or wrong ... [and] they show especially poor judgment when they are with their peers,â says Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. Heâs not surprised the allegations include, for instance, that they collectively decided to throw out the backpack after discovering it contained fireworks that had been emptied of gunpowder.
Research has shown that when adolescents are with their peers, they âpay a disproportionate amount of attention to the potential rewards of a decision and not to the cost,â Professor Steinberg says. Often, he says, they donât believe theyâll be caught, or they arenât thinking about what the consequences could be if they are.Â
An FBI affidavit says that the three friends, who at one point were all students at the University of Massachusetts â Dartmouth, had seen images of Mr. Tsarnaev as a suspect in the bombing, had texted with him, and then put the backpack in the garbage âbecauseÂ they did not want Tsarnaev to get into trouble.â It does not specify what happened to the laptop. The FBI account also says Messrs. Kadyrbayev and Tazhayakov had heard Tsarnaev say a month before that he knew how to make a bomb.
The three suspectsâ lawyers have denied the charges and said the young men didnât know that their friend was one of the bomb suspects.
During adolescence and a search for identity, âfriends become so important,â says Jennifer Powell-Lunder, a clinical psychologist in Westchester County, N.Y., and co-author of âTeenage as a Second Language.â When they found the backpack in Tsarnaevâs room, âtheir gut probably said, âWow, this probably shouldnât be in here.â... This was a friend who they knew,... everybody talked about him as a good kid, a good guy. I think they were really focusing more on the emotion and ... the connection that they had, at the expense of really understanding the ramifications of what they were doing.â
But the case could lead to more emphasis, at college orientations, for example, on the need to report if peers are involved in something of concern, Dr. Powell-Lunder says.
Kdyrbayev and Tazhayakov, charged with obstruction of justice, could be subject to up to five years in prison. Mr. Phillipos, charged with lying to investigators, could face eight years in prison.
How to treat crimes by young people is a dilemma for the legal system, Powell-Lunder says. âThese young boys, I cringe to even call them men, may end up being the example, and hopefully other people will understand how serious this is,â she says.
Reports that Kadyrbayevâs car had a license plate reading âTerrorista #1â brings up the important role of parents, Powell-Lunder says.
According to Kadyrbayevâs lawyer, the plate was a gag gift from friends, and Powell-Lunder applauds the right of free speech in such matters. But âIf Iâm that parent, I would say ... take that license plate off your car right now. Iâm not paying for your college if you donât,â she says. âThis is an alarm that we all need to step up.... Just because you send your kid off to college does not make them an adult.â
When it comes to ethics, thereâs not enough education for young people about the concept of âcomplicity,â says Michael Josephson, president of the Josephson Institute in Los Angeles.
Both teens and adults sometimes couch their action as a value, such as loyalty, but thatâs âa moral excuse for passivity and avoiding involvement and conflict,â he says. âPeople pretend that âItâs my ethics,â but itâs really just simply a self-interest.â
People should expand their sense of loyalty to realize who will be helped and who will be hurt by their decision to do or not do something, Mr. Josephson says. Teaching young people to think about that wide range of âstakeholdersâ is part of Character Counts!, a comprehensive character education program the Josephson Institute supports that has reached more than 8 million students in the United States.
âMoral obligations come with the situations we are presented with,â Josephson says, âand we have choices: We can either make things better, we can leave them the way they are, or sometimes we make things worse.â
â˘ Associated Press material was used in this report.